Feminist Theories of Patriarchy
Date: March 13, 2018
Malte Mueller / Getty Images
By Linda Napikoski, with contributions by Jone Johnson Lewis
Updated December 01, 2017
Definition: Patriarchal (adj.) describes a general structure in which men have power over women. Society (n.) is the entirety of relations of a community. A patriarchal society consists of a male-dominated power structure throughout organized society and in individual relationships.
Power is related to privilege. In a system in which men have more power than women, men have some level of privilege to which women are not entitled.
The concept of patriarchy has been central to many feminist theories. It is an attempt to explain the stratification of power and privilege by gender that can be observed by many objective measures.
A patriarchy, from the ancient Greek patriarches, was a society where power was held by and passed down through the elder males. When modern historians and sociologists describe a “patriarchal society,” they mean that men hold the positions of power and have more privilege: head of the family unit, leaders of social groups, boss in the workplace and heads of government.
In patriarchy, there is also a hierarchy among the men. In traditional patriarchy, the elder men had power over the younger generations of men. In modern patriarchy, some men hold more power (and privilege) by virtue of position of authority, and this hierarchy of power (and privilege) is considered acceptable.
The term comes from pater or father.
Father or father-figures hold the authority in a patriarchy. Traditional patriarchal societies are, usually, also patrilineal — titles and property are inherited through male lines. (For an example of this, the Salic Law as applied to property and titles followed male lines strictly.)
Feminist theorists have expanded the definition of patriarchal society to describe a systemic bias against women.
As second-wave feminists examined society during the 1960s, they did observe households headed by women and female leaders. They were of course concerned with whether this was uncommon. More significant, however, was the way society perceived women in power as an exception to a collectively held view of women’s “role” in society. Rather than saying that individual men oppressed women, most feminists saw that oppression of women came from the underlying bias of a patriarchal society.
GERDA LERNER’S ANALYSIS OF PATRIARCHY
Gerda Lerner‘s 1986 history classic, The Creation of Patriarchy, traces the development of the patriarchy to the second millennium B.C.E. in the middle east, putting gender relations at the center of the story of civilization’s history. She argues that before this development, male dominance was not a feature of human society in general. Women were key to the maintenance of human society and community, but with a few exceptions, social and legal power was wielded by men. Women could gain some status and privilege in patriarchy by limiting her child-bearing capacity to just one man, so that he could depend on her children being his children.
By rooting patriarchy — a social organization where men rule over women — in historical developments, rather than in nature, human nature or biology, she also opens the door for change.
If patriarchy was created by culture, it can be overturned by a new culture.
Part of her theory, carried through into another volume, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, is that women were not conscious that they were subordinate (and it might be otherwise) until this consciousness began slowly to emerge, starting with medieval Europe.
In an interview with Jeffrey Mishlove on “Thinking Aloud,” Lerner described her work on the subject of patriarchy:
“Other groups that were subordinated in history — peasants, slaves, colonials, any kind of group, ethnic minorities — all of those groups knew very quickly that they were subordinated, and they developed theories about their liberation, about their rights as human beings, about what kind of struggle to conduct in order to emancipate themselves. But women did not, and so that was the question that I really wanted to explore. And in order to understand it I had to understand really whether patriarchy was, as most of us have been taught, a natural, almost God-given condition, or whether it was a human invention coming out of a specific historic period. Well, in Creation of Patriarchy I think I show that it was indeed a human invention; it was created by human beings, it was created by men and women, at a certain given point in the historical development of the human race. It was probably appropriate as a solution for the problems of that time, which was the Bronze Age, but it’s no longer appropriate, all right? And the reason we find it so hard, and we have found it so hard, to understand it and to combat it, is that it was institutionalized before Western civilization really, as we know it, was, so to speak, invented, and the process of creating patriarchy was really well completed by the time that the idea systems of Western civilization were formed.”
Categories: Releases, Slider Featured